Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – Recess is Important

Denise Hills, a geologist, and her husband, a college geology professor, live in Tuscaloosa, AL with their two children, a first grader and a three-year-old. Last year, when her son was in kindergarten at the local public school, he didn’t get recess. Mid-year, Denise wrote a letter to the principal and local school board, expressing her concerns, but she never heard back.

This year, things are better.

Recess is Important
by Denise Hills
Tuscaloosa, AL

I wrote a letter last year to my son’s principal and the school board about the lack of recess at my son’s school. I quoted research (information that I received through this blog, mostly), and gave an impassioned plea to let my son run around for even just a few minutes a day! I heard nothing back from the school board, and only had a cursory call from the principal. The end of the year was rapidly approaching, and I knew that nothing was going to change for that year.

This year, I was determined to pursue things more rigorously, for my son’s sake. He’s a VERY active boy, and ends up in trouble because he can’t sit still. Recess helps with that. So, at the start of the year, in a new school, I looked at his schedule. Sigh. No recess.

So, I dug out the letter I wrote last year and revised it, and got ready to send it to his principal. However, I ran into my son’s teacher before I sent the letter, and am I glad I did! She told me that they do have recess, they just can’t call it recess. They are required to have a certain number of instructional minutes per day, and recess doesn’t count towards that. There’s no time in the schedule for recess, so they call it something else (I’m not letting on as to what they call it, because I don’t want them to lose it!).

Yay! My son is getting recess! But I wanted to know if this is going to go away next year, so I still wanted to bring it up with the principal. Luckily, we have a fabulous, approachable principal at this school. When I voiced my concerns about recess with her, she immediately said that it is her commitment that EVERY child in her school, from grades 1-5, gets recess EVERY day. She is the one who has told the teachers how to implement it and still maintain the required “instructional” minutes. What a change from the previous principal, who essentially told me she couldn’t do anything!

I’ve spoken with the principal a bit about what we can do to help change things across the district, not just at our school, because while I’m thrilled that my son has recess, I want every child to have recess. We have a new school board now, so I’m hoping that will be a good starting point for my project to get recess instituted at all our local schools, and maybe even eventually at all schools in the state! Wish me luck!

16 thoughts on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – Recess is Important

  1. Denise, I commend you for an elegantly crafted letter. But everyone, stop and just read this phrase;

    “and gave an impassioned plea to let my son run around for even just a few minutes a day! ”

    What has our world come to when we must lobby relentlessly and give an impassioned plea just to let a six year old boy run around for even a few minutes a day.

    I’m busy today but I am curious. Anyone want to research how much physical exercise inmates on death row receive? I’m willing to bet it’s more than a few minutes a day.

    Oh, wait. Death row inmates don’t get to go home. This little boy does. I guess he can run around then, they presume. If homework doesn’t gobble up yet more hours of daylight.

    But Denise, again, well done! Hats off to you.


  2. Interesting that you should make the comparison to prison HWB, because last night on Stephen Colbert, he had a guy on named Cevin Soling who has made a movie called, “The War on Kids”. Last night he was speaking about how some new prisons are nicer than many high schools in America today and are run more humanely. His approach is militant and so I don’t think his film will get as much view as “Race to Nowhere”, but he has valid points.


  3. Denise, I now finished reading your entire letter. I caught that phrase and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

    Sounds like you got a wonderful teacher. And you must be so thrilled the old principal is gone and a new more enlightened one has taken his place.

    But when you consider that giving kids recess is “enlightened,” I am reminded of Alfie Kohn’s line, “back to basics? When have we ever left?” Our discussion yesterday spoke of using 1950s methodology in 21st century classrooms. But at least in the 1950s, the mere thought of eliminating recess was anathema.

    Denise, it’s great your school found a way to sneak in that recess. Just the thought that it has to be surreptitious is chilling.


  4. I just wanted to comment to Denise as well. It’s good you were paying attention. I think paying attention is the start of a new approach to school. That’s what I’m telling all my friends who have babies and toddlers and preschoolers right now. People tend to glaze over when I get on my homework soapbox, because sometimes it’s like someone has flipped a switch on my back when I get started. People ask themselves, I’m sure, where the off button is. But now, I try to point out some books, some articles (if they ask) and I just ask them to keep their eyes open (and their minds) and to not just blindly accept whatever they get told at school. Whenever I can slip in that homework in elementary school is useless, I do that too.

    It’s not possible anymore to settle them in on the first day, and then come for parent-teacher conferences 12 weeks later. We need to listen to and observe our children. That’s how we become involved in their school lives. We, as parents, have to assess whether school is mixing well with our kid. Are her needs getting met? It’s a vastly different question than, “Is my child measuring up to the school’s standards?”


  5. To add, PM, didn’t mean to chop the “i” off your introductory word (interesting). And lately, have you all noticed that if you cut and paste parts of a previous comment as I did with PsychMom, spaces pop up in the middle of the words? Is it just Google Chrome or all browsers? I try to go back and take the spaces out, each word, but I miss one or two. So PM, that was, again, not your original error.


  6. My take:
    While I do believe children learn best through play, you won’t see me advocating for recess anytime soon. My own memories of recess bring nothing but horror. When a group of people (and children included) congregate, they expect someone to lead them. And, if children do not have a leader, they will do just as the rest of the world has done and they will elect one. The outcome of that is either a playground bully or your child being the playground bully. As I said, my memories are horrific. They include bullies who worked by pushing me down, saying deplorable things to me and I even earned my first kiss from a boy on the playground in about the fifth grade.

    And, let’s face it, none of us want our children to grow up feeling negatively about themselves in any way, the playground is just a breeding ground for meanness.

    What do I propose?

    As an over-weight woman, mother and former physical education teacher, I blame inadequate physical education for my disdain of exercise. We were taught that if we misbehaved or otherwise acted out, we would have to do more exercises. One exercise in particular that stands out in my mind was the old “leg lifts”. This comprised of lying on our backs while raising our feet a few inches off the floor. Every time someone talked, laughed or bellyached, we were awarded more of the dreaded leg lifts. And, with that, I hate to exercise.

    So What Then?

    It is a proven fact that physical education teachers can accommodate both the desire for children to participate in activities led by a leader (the teacher, not a classmates) and the freedom to learn through reflective or free play if you will. I can sit and write your teacher’s lesson plans all day long, but a good physical education teacher knows how to incorporate a student’s classroom studies into the world of physical education. Complimenting the classroom teachers is really easy and makes the job of the physical education teacher much easier. Easier than just turning the kids loose on the playground? I think so. In my experiences as an adult on the playground, I’ve seen the same bullying, the same cliques and the same electing of a leader without a notion of good or bad.

    A good physical education teacher can and will find imaginative ways to teach the children fun and games and leave them with the ability to form imaginative stories all on their own. I guess this could easier be explained with an example. Here are only a few, tell me, after reading a few of these ideas would you prefer your child be left to defend himself or herself from the playground bully or that encounter of whispers and even kisses on the playground.

    K – 2nd grade: The students can do their warm-up exercises by counting, saying their abc’s, their multiplication tables and more. They can be split (by the teacher, not by some awful playground method of picking and choosing) and asked to run relays. Incorporating their classmates to help them accomplish a goal while leaving them to their own devices of what kind of animal they might want to pretend to be. The relays aren’t stopped when one line is finished first but instead after a length of time. There is no clear winner, no group that stands out, it’s all about the individual. My son’s school actually has paper numerical keyboards cut out and pasted on the bleachers. The students run, skip, jump, crab walk, etc over to the paper keyboard and put in their lunch code. The end result, creativity while learning an essential part of their day.

    3rd – 5th: A picture of the world appropriately placed in the gymnasium can be accented by separating the gym into sections (or Countries) and then putting activities at each station that compliment the study of a particular Country or Continent even. The students move from Country to Country in a timed manner. While this accommodates all the children, it leaves them to brainstorm and exercise their imaginations.

    6th – 8th grade: This is probably the trickiest and most difficult age. Exercise starts to seem like work instead of fun and many many students will quit running and playing on the playground but when given the opportunity to learn through play, they still excel. For this age, you could easily set up enough stations to accommodate many children in lifelong activities like badminton or table tennis. Setting up multiple courts of badminton and then the students not only participate in the activity, they learn to keep score and the learn skills that can easily convert to a campground or even the front lawn.

    But, what about the real imaginative play?

    I can’t say that I feel that rewarding students for good behavior is the proper thing to do, it certainly seems to be the norm. You aren’t necessarily rewarded for going to work every day, but moreover, you are probably disciplined if you do not. While my son’s school partakes in many activities that I abhor, they do a great job in the gymnasium and on the playground. This is the result of a hard-nose teacher who had worked her way through the system and would not budge on what is appropriate and what is not in her physical education class. She actually rewarded her students for performing well four days a week by allowing them the opportunity to choose their activity on Friday. I kind of look at that as a casual-dress on Friday kind of idea. If it works and it is feasible, then at least give it a try. The teacher still chooses the activities available for the students to participate in (and can never bring out the well-known ball and bat syndrome that many teachers exercise) and can actually allow the children a general overall sense of decision making at the same time.

    For me?
    I”ll take the well known and finely researched techniques taught to me (and many others before me, or after if you will) in my study to obtain my degree as a physical education teacher. I don’t want to think I took Kinesiology and Eexercise Physiology twice (cough cough) just to get a job and then sit down and roll out a ball all day ever day. Possibly this practice is why our physical education teachers aren’t valued like they should be in the first place. So, don’t get me wrong,I believe that learning through play is an essential ingredient for success as we grow, I also know that there is no substitute for proper physical education. And, no amount of time on the playground recess-style can meet the expectations that a crowd of children come to expect.


  7. @Jerri Ann Reason: Adults do get rewarded for showing up at work every day. I get a biweekly paycheck and an annual-ish raise.

    I can only speak to my local schools, but they seem to have gotten pretty good about monitoring recess for bullying and inappropriate activity. While there will always be some bad apples, I don’t agree with what I’m reading into what you said: that kids will turn any free play into a Lord of the Flies situation.

    I do agree with you on what you proposed for the 6th-8th grade group and wish that would be applied to more age groups. Too much PhysEd is dictating what kids will play. Give them some choices and people will get–and continue–more exercise if they can do activities they like.


  8. Sorry Jerri Ann – I’m also an overweight woman, and the approach you propose taught me to hate exercise! My school also does not have a major bullying problem, thanks to concerned parents, a wonderful staff, and a education that emphisises exploration and student-led learning. Kids having free time in an enviroment the emphisises kindness, and community do not turn into a pack of wild animals that need to be trained by an adult, as a circus animal is trained by a trainer, complete with calathentics. They explore, make friends, learn social skills, find bugs, ride bikes or scooters, play catch….and are far better for it. My girls do participate in activities with a coach (gymnastics) but there’s no way an hour of that class would equal 20 minutes of just running around being a kid expending energy…too much time is wasted in just trying to control a group of 6 kids, let alone 22!


  9. I spent a long time last night thinking about Jerri Ann’s comments (I was supposed to be marking a stack of lab reports on gene cloning, but that seemed more interesting). Like the previous poster, I have to come to the conclusion that I don’t agree with all of what Jerri Ann states.

    As yet another woman of generous proportions who absolutely detested phys ed, I am pretty convinced that it pushed me away from physical activity, it didn’t encourage it.

    I also think that for personal development reasons kids have to have some kid mediated time without adult referees making all the calls. This environment has to be safe, and there has to be some way of ensuring that kids aren’t suffering excessive bullying. I fear, though, that many of today’s youth are losing the ability to interact with their peers on an equal footing. We have to learn these social skills, we can’t function as a society without them.

    Finally, my heart goes out to the original poster. What a horrible system! I often bemoan that I live in the educational backwater of Canada, rural New Brunswick, but my kids get a 20 minute and 40 minute recess every day and 4 – 5 phys ed periods per week. At least we have that!


  10. Wow, Amanda. Four to five Phys-ed periods per week! Our kids, here in Halifax, get gym once a week, but they get recess everyday in the AM, almost an hour outdoors at lunch and at least 45 minutes outdoors (if the weather is good) after school. While the kids complain about having to walk to another school to use their gym (our school doesn’t have one), I like that feature. Oh, and we have a swim program on Fridays. So I guess the kids get enough physical activity. I can’t imagine what my child would be like if she spend the whole week indoors. She’d lose her mind.

    In response to Jerri-Ann, I am frankly at a loss. There’s a whole lot of emotion tied into her reasons for advocating so strongly for structured activities. But I think we have to allow children more freedom than that. Teachers have a responsibility to monitor what goes on on the playground so that no one gets bullied, but taking over children’s play time seems too intrusive. I can’t help imagining that if we tell the kids what to do all their waking hours, there will come a time when we’re not around, when they will be at a loss as to how to spend their own time.

    I too, am on the heavy side, always have been, and always hated gym. Love physical activity outdoors, but can’t stand most competitive sports. I still shudder when I recall those outfits we HAD to wear for gym and the gymnastic units of every blasted year when we had to do floor routines!


  11. Your son sounds like mine – he also has trouble sitting still and he’s quite a handful. Thank goodness for recess 🙂

    Our district has a daily activity mandate which is fulfilled by recess and lunch, phys ed, and once a day upbeat music is pumped through the PA and the kids all get up and walk/dance around the class (I think for the duration of one song). In spite of all of that, my son still has trouble sitting quietly. Poor kid!! I can’t imagine how his day would be without all the activity breaks…


  12. will should stop home work cause its upsetting ppli no yh im a student a wood rush and i think homw work is welll hard i mean cum on we get bout 6 pices a day an i HATE it i wish home wok was banned for ever i mean like thats harz and when u havent done it the teachers go mad at you cause u havent done it and that yuo get 2 much any way stop homw work ppl out there please stop it i wud like it 32 be stopped buy the end of the week thanks please xxx


  13. “I also think that for per­sonal devel­op­ment rea­sons kids have to have some kid medi­ated time with­out adult ref­er­ees mak­ing all the calls.”

    The key here is the children are simply not mature enough to mediate their own time. My disdain for activity is because our physical education time was either an all out brawl playing games where people (not just me) were bullied or it was a time for punishing us with exercise. When people are punished with exercise they learn to dislike it. When they are taught how to control their own destiny with exercise by giving them viable options, then you have accomplished the goal of physical education.

    Please remember, I spent years in college learning the proper techniques of teaching physical education and at no time was punishing children by forcing them to do situps, pullups, pushups, etc part of that.

    I mentioned that I ride my school system hard because of the homework issue and in many cases, we simply don’t do it and I sent a note saying as much. The key here is, he gets 30 minutes of physical education, 20 minutes to eat lunch which doesn’t involve in movement except walking to and from the lunchroom which is across the hall and then he gets another 10 minute break which involves more eating.

    So, if they are going to do their job during the hours he is at school, I can allow him the free time at home to play, to empower his imagination and to learn to “mediate” with his free time after school. But, when they send home enough homework that he doesn’t get to do that, then something gets seriously distorted.

    I’d much rather my son spend his time at school learning, getting physical education every day and then coming home and leaving all that school work behind.

    As an adult,, you say you go to work so you can get paid. What happens if you don’t go to work? That’s a double edged sword. You can’t say you go to work for the paycheck anymore than you can say that you don’t go because you like being hungry and homeless.

    And as adults, most of us carry out 2 jobs, we go to a work environment all day where we earn money, then we come home and start our second job of housekeeping, laundry, raising our children by helping with homework, etc. I get frustrated with my 2 jobs and I don’t think that a 6 year old has any reason to take part in two jobs. Go to school all day, and then come home and do their second job of homework all evening.

    So, if we are going to insist that the school day take over the job that they are trained to do, then we have to assume that they are doing this in every class, including physical education. How many of you would be happy if you found out your child was being taught chemistry by someone who was trained to teach Elementary English or Social Studies. So, what makes you think that your classroom teachers are trained to teach physical education.

    When I graduated from college with a B.S. in education, I had amassed a set of classes that no other teacher’s in a regular school system were part of. Your chemistry teachers took the chemistry that I took, your anatomy and physiology teachers took the anatomy and phys. classes but no one took kinesiology or exercise physiology. And certain not with the chemistry, the anatomy and physiology.

    The biggest point that people seem to be confused on is that educated Physical Education teachers can and will accommodate the child’s need for structure and their need for imaginative play. Have you ever been in your child’s physical education class and watched them move from station to station (or country to country) and partaking in activities that one might find in those countries? If you have, then you wouldn’t be advocating for your child to jut be turned loose on a playground.

    I went to school on Thursday and my son was in physical education, And, as I said, I ride them hard about the amount of crappy homework that comes home. But, physical education is different. The children have the options of tossing rubber balls into baskets in 2 stations, they could do rope climbing on the wall where the rope is anchored, they has these really ginormous balls they could play with, they had jump ropes and they had basketballs that would fit ito the goals which were lowered to fit their ability.

    Now, there is plenty of room for imaginative play, they had plenty of time to handle their own “problems” but if they can’t, there is a qualified person there to help guide them. There were opportunities in that one 30 minute class then you will ever see a class get in one of those “run wild and free recess style” sessions.

    Someone mentioned the my thoughts were laced with emotions, that’s not necessarily the truth, my thoughts are laced with what I was taught in college and I have no more desire to go teach English than most English teacher’s want to go monitor some form of recess.

    And, finally, I was going to avoid this part but let me give you an example of what happens when teachers take their classes outside for recess as opposed to trained professionals. Generally several classes will go at once. So let’s take my son’s class for instance. A ratio of 1 teacher for every 20 students in 3 classes of first grade. All 60 children are taken to a playground which is technically made to house about 30 children at once. And, the, the teacher either sit in a chair and partake in mindless conversation or they take turns, one or two at a time going inside to do classroom work, make copies, etc. That leaves one teacher for 60 kids. (Which is against the law, 60 children requires at least 2 Trained Physical Education Teacher so to leave that many on a playground wit h one classroom teacher is insane. What makes anyone think that this is acceptable. Those same 60 children have 2 physical education teachers and in many cases they also have an aid.

    The bottom line is this, if your child is the bully, you are going to find that after recess is when you find yourself being called to the school. If your child is the victim of the bully, you are going to find yourself mad and trying to figure out the best way to handle the whole situation.

    I will tell you what I am going to do here, I”m going to pull my research on this and see if that helps explain my concepts. It will take ma a couple of days as I have several large projects going on. I will tell you though, I was just interviewed by Parenting Magazine on this issue so you should see my opinion with some deep rooted research in their magazine.

    I’ll send my info to Sara and hopefully we can make another post out of it and make the information more contained.


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